Vertical Farming: A 10,000 year old industry + 10 year old science

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What is Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming is farming done indoors, with rows of plants stacked on top of each other. Dirt is not used, and the nutrients that usually come from dirt are simply added into the water. LED lights are used instead of sunlight. These lights provide 24 hours of light, which makes plants grow much faster. Since vertical farms are indoors, the plants are also protected from bugs, birds, and other animals, so pesticides (the chemicals used to kill bugs) are not needed either.

In many ways, vertical farming is more efficient than traditional farming; it uses far less land and water and grows more food than traditional farming. For example, the CEO of Plenty (a vertical farm we will read about below) said that their farm can grow 350x as much food compared to a traditional farm.

Source: Plenty.ag

However, many vertical farming startups have failed over the last 20 years, with key reasons being high technology costs, not being able to scale farms large enough to be profitable, and bad choices in marketing or product development.

Transportation costs are another huge problem. The average shipping distance is over 2,000 miles, so a huge part of food costs go to transport. Another benefit to vertical farms is that they can be placed close to cities, lowering transportation costs. In many cases, shipping time is cut to hours instead of weeks, which means the food tastes fresher and even stays more nutritious.

So, are vertical farms just another ‘cool idea’ or can they really be more cost-efficient? Plenty, a startup  from California with huge investment capital (over $400,000,000) might be a winner.

Plenty's Strategy

[Plenty] farms use 99% less land and 95% less water… grow pesticide-free and non-GMO crops. All this in service of healthier plants, people and planet.”

-Plenty.ag

Vertical farming creates more food in less time, but does it take less work and at a lower cost? For some companies, that answer is no. For Plenty, that answer seems to be yes! Plenty entered the market later, at a time when LED light costs were falling a lot.

In traditional farming, labor is expensive. In vertical farming, the workers are likely college-educated and want even higher pay. However, Plenty uses cameras to watch light and temperature levels. Robots are used to help plant new seeds. Their farms are like factories and the entire system is carefully planned and controlled. 

Plenty is selling high-quality food at high prices. They are beginning with leafy greens, which are expensive and extremely delicious (if they are grown well). Leafy greens also grow faster than other fruits and vegetables, which means they can grow more in a shorter amount of time. After that, they will move on to other types like tomatoes or strawberries.

“We’re looking to compete with the whole middle section of the grocery store — all that dead stuff with... sugars and lots of calories,” Barnard said. “We want to compete straight up on flavor.”

-Plenty CEO, Quoted in LA Times

Plenty wants to put a vertical farm outside of every city with over 1,000,000 people. That’s about 500 cities all over the world. They might not be able to change the whole agriculture industry, but they look promising, and just might be a big winner in a long row of failed companies.